Century Marks

Century Marks

Joking around

While religion played a role in the Egyptian protests (see "Muslims and Copts together"), so did humor. The garbage pile that accumulated in Tahrir Square was labeled the National Democratic Party headquarters—the name of Hosni Mubarak's party. After the vice president accused the protesters of having foreign agendas, youth started showing up with blank notebooks, proclaiming to each other, "Whoops, I left my 'agenda' at home." One woman, in an e-mail, likened Mubarak's reign to a long, loveless marriage: "After 30 years with my husband I feel like I need a new start, but he ­doesn't feel the same way, and now I can't get rid of him." The humor built camaraderie among the protesters and provided a safe means of defying the regime (The Atlantic, February).

Academic tithe

Troubled by world poverty, Toby Ord founded Giving What We Can, a philanthropic collective mostly for academics. It operates with two rules: give generously and give effectively. Ord, a philosophy researcher at Oxford who makes $52,000 a year, has recruited some academic heavyweights, like controversial bioethicist Peter Singer of Princeton University. The 80-some members of the collective have pledged to donate at least 10 percent of their annual pretax income. Ord says that where you give is as important as whether you give. Some graduate students at Rutgers University have started an American chapter of Giving What We Can (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 13).

Someone has to do it

Preachers have a demanding job description, says David G. Buttrick, who taught preaching at Vanderbilt University. They can't just take a text and say, "Here's what the Bible says." They have to remember that much time has passed since the original text was written. What preachers say about a text should be in conversation with the discussion that has arisen about it over the years. And they have to translate the text into contemporary meaning and "turn our half-formed understandings into words designed to form in congregational consciousness." It's a daunting task (Interpretation, January).

Praying together

People who attend religious services regularly and build friendships within their congregation indicate higher levels of satisfaction with their lives, according to a Faith Matters survey of American adults conducted from 2006 to 2007. Strength of religious convictions and private religious practices such as prayer do not by themselves indicate higher levels of satisfaction. What matters is a strong sense of religious identity and belonging and the forging of friendships within one's faith community. "It is neither faith nor communities, per se, that are important, but communities of faith," report the authors of the study. "For life satisfaction, praying together seems to be better than either bowling together or praying alone" (Chaeyoon Lim and Robert D. Putnam in American Sociological Review, December 2010).

Shrinking church

Barely half of the population of El Salvador is Catholic now, and the number of Catholics in Honduras and Belize has dropped below half, with Nicaragua not far behind. Some Salvadorans left the Catholic Church after Archbishop Óscar Romero was murdered in 1980, because it was dangerous then to be associated with the church. More recently, Catholics have been drawn to evangelical Protestant churches, and the prosperity gospel is a draw in poor countries. Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama have bucked this trend and remain strongly Catholic (Economist, February 5).